The future of human rights and overcoming anthropocentrism


Eduardo Barcesat
Feb, 2022

In our current climate, between the aftershocks of a pandemic that seems to have no end and a growing wave of militarism resurrecting dangerous ghosts from the past, the notion of humanity itself has become a topic of debate. Natural disasters are becoming more frequent and intense, resulting from global warming caused by extreme, extractivist and predatory policies that are upending the natural harmony between living creatures and their environment. All of this serves as the background for our mournful story, which could end up being the last story ever told. Social scientists urgently need to address these circumstances, not only in order to make a diagnosis of the status quo, but also to lead the way down a new and urgently needed pathway.

The COVID-19 pandemic

COVID-19 has shown that we lack the knowledge needed to face extraordinary circumstances. It has taken enormous efforts in science, medicine and pharmacology to develop vaccines that, so far, are merely preventive and only reduce the risk, reach and rate of transmission, but as of yet have not been able to eradicate the virus or even stop it from spreading.

These scientific efforts are the result of a previously unimaginable level of mobilisation and economic resource investment. For once, the world aimed to protect the values of life, health and personal integrity instead of investing in arms, which are always tools of destruction, never tools of peace.

Photo_ Unknown – hnt6581_ CC BY 2.0

However, given that this effort was carried out in a world dominated by globalisation, competition among drug manufacturers and the commodification of medicines, governments found themselves obligated to intervene in order to ensure that research would be conducted and vaccines would be produced. They understood that individuals would not be able to provide these services using their own financial means and that various forms of state intervention would be needed to ensure that vaccines were acquired and distributed according to need rather than wealth.

Let’s be clear, though: medicines are still commodified. Nation states have simply assumed the costs of acquiring them instead of putting the cost on individual consumers. However, as different countries exhibit great financial inequality, vaccines accumulated in places of greater financial means, and were lacking—and still are—in places where the needs of the people are most dire, in countries that are poor, marginalised, dependent, “underdeveloped” or “emerging”—choose whichever term you see fit. The bottom line is always a lack of wealth.

Add to this the short-sightedness and outright stinginess of certain governments and it sets the stage for widespread dispossession of rights. Of course, as social scientists we can limit ourselves to saying that health care, in all its forms, is a human right and not a commodity. However, in order to avoid falling into hypocrisy, we absolutely must ask ourselves: how can local, provincial, national and international institutions guarantee access to vaccines, medicines and other medical care according to need rather than financial means?

This gives an indication of how we should approach the dichotomy of, on the one hand, supply and demand for a commodity and the economic resources available to produce and acquire it, and on the other hand, the state intervention needed to meet a real need and guarantee human rights.

The new militarism

We could formulate an extensive analysis of the conflict between two countries that share a vast border and that were once a single country, historically speaking, but this would only result in heavily biassed explanations and would contribute little towards a solution.

This gives an indication of how we should approach the dichotomy of, on the one hand, supply and demand for a commodity and the economic resources available to produce and acquire it, and on the other hand, the state intervention needed to meet a real need and guarantee human rights.

The only certainty we can gain from the insights of social scientists, or from common sense for that matter, is that the indefinite prolongation of this conflict is not only exacerbating the humanitarian crisis, but also contributing to the almost certain possibility that the war will develop into a nuclear conflict and destroy, along with the enemy, all life on this planet.

What is clear is that the project of universal peace and an efficient and balanced world organisation that can intervene and resolve conflicts quickly and effectively has vanished. Ethical declarations may serve as a universal objection, but they do not seem to be able to substitute the use of arms and the narcissistic urge for nations to determine who is the strongest or most capable of destruction, or even worse, who is most willing to prove it.

Reflecting on the reality of how this conflict could develop, we modestly offer the precepts laid out in articles 28 and 30 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realised.
Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.”

The environmental limits of anthropocentrism

The anthropocentrism that, until now, has dominated how we see the world and how human society behaves, is slowly giving way to a new biocentrist paradigm, in which humans cease to take centre stage as supreme doer and undoer of all things and assume a role as just another part of nature, and therefore must adapt their existence as a society to mother nature’s rules of survival and reproduction. Ideas such as “crimes against nature” or “ecocide” have gained traction in the social sciences and present new challenges that, I repeat, should be addressed according to this new biocentrist paradigm. Nature now has its place as a subject protected under law, and is therefore entitled to “human” rights as well.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed in any way to social theory it’s that it has dealt a blow to humanity’s arrogance, omnipresence and belief that we can create our own destiny. It has revealed our existential fragility and our need to preserve this unique world in which our society’s survival remains inextricably tied to and governed by nature, and in fact entirely dependent on it. Yet, despite how painfully undeniable our current situation is, social theory is still ill equipped to answer one important question: “So how do we get out of this mess?”

The contribution of Human Rights

The concept of Human Rights is the greatest contribution made by 20th century social and political theory, and indeed all signs indicate that the mission of today’s social scientists lies in furthering the direction of this clearly humanistic theory and philosophy. Our goal should be to keep human rights from serving as a lofty set of norms, a kind of idealised enlightenment, and instead focus on making them an experience inherently contained within societal concepts of law and justice. In simpler terms, human rights should not just be used as instruments of virtue signalling for State institutions (as is currently the case), but rather must have some tangible effect on the day-to-day lives of those objectively in need, who should be able to have their needs met through rigorous use of and adherence to the principles of human rights.

These rights, though recognised and consecrated in standardised, almost sacred texts, do not emerge from some inherent humanness, nor from their positive impact, but from the growing complexity of social relationships—social conflicts, various forms of antagonism and the many hereto unresolvable struggles within the macrostructure of international geopolitics. With wealthy, minority world countries on the one hand and less wealthy majority world countries on the other, we see a growing inequality in the distribution of wealth that presents a challenge to the values of “freedom”, “equality” and “fraternity”. This is perhaps most clearly expressed in the inaugural speeches of UN human rights summits, which recognised that our greatest challenge at present is not drafting a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but rather bringing to fruition the rights that social theory has been championing for more than 50 years, which, despite widespread recognition, have yet to solve extreme inequality among different communities.

The challenge of putting words into action

A clear example of this contradiction is addressed in Resolution 1/2020, April 10, 2020, of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (ICHR), regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and the validity of human rights, in particular Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Rights (ESCER). After defining the rights threatened by the pandemic as the rights to life, health and integrity, the resolution dedicates a lengthy section to describing the extreme inequality that can be found in the Americas. Indeed, these continents possess an enormous and diverse mass of wealth and natural resources—arable land, exceptional landscapes, reservoirs of potable water, hydrocarbons, an abundance of minerals that are strategically important for scientific and technological development, and so on. Nevertheless, huge pockets of the population are left without access to drinking water or rural land and are condemned to what Professor Asbjorn Eide called ‘the silent genocide of hunger’, which every two years takes more lives than the total number of WWII victims.

Our goal should be to keep human rights from serving as a lofty set of norms, a kind of idealised enlightenment, and instead focus on making them an experience inherently contained within societal concepts of law and justice.

The first clauses of both UN international agreements, which in addition to enshrining the right to self-determination for communities and their right to economic independence, also proclaim communities—not the States or their governments—to be the owners of their land’s natural resources, but this has not become a reality for the peoples of the Americas. It is paradoxical that the most respected and powerful norms of international and human rights law, which cover and are obligatory in all of the States of the UN, and which in countries like Argentina, as a result of the 1994 Constitutional Reform, follow the same hierarchy as the constitutional clauses. Nevertheless, the provisions made by these International Agreements have no influence or practical impact on the internal legislation of individual States.

Once again, we are simply practising institutional virtue signalling, but there is no social engineering to exercise these rights, the highest expression of the people’s judicial conscience, or to turn human rights into instruments of transformation and victory over unequal international structures of power. With the effective implementation of these rights comes the great responsibility of true sovereignty and economic independence for the people of the Americas.

However, beyond just emphasising the inherent unity of civil and political rights with economic, social and cultural rights—to which we can now add environmental rights—ensuring life and health for a human being requires their economic, social, cultural and environmental rights to be fully in effect.

On the conceptualisation of these rights, Eide maintains that when a State endorses or adopts a treaty or convention referring to economic, social, cultural and environmental rights, not only does it undertake to not arbitrarily disturb those who more or less enjoy these rights, but it commits itself to delivering results; that is, to guaranteeing access to these rights as promised by the law. It should also guarantee that such results are enforceable, because otherwise the treaty would be nothing more than a moralising rant or political discourse, but have little to do with actual rights. This is because a right is something that can be enforced, and that generally should be enforced in the day-to-day material world.

For our part, we would like to contribute to this idea by arguing that dispossessing people of their legally guaranteed rights is objectively unlawful. That is, human rights policy should not busy itself with trying—almost always in vain—to determine who is guilty of taking away people’s rights, but should rather focus on verifying instances where people are stripped of their rights in order to be able to reinstate their access to those rights via legal channels. Thus, the word “access” is, in our opinion, the most important word in human rights policy. Furthermore, we say “policy” in order to differentiate it from empty declarations. Human rights policy entails the assumption of obligation to fulfil these rights, with recourse and via established social structures.

Structural and epistemological obstacles

All State legal norms must necessarily be subordinate to recognised human rights texts. However—and herein lies the contradiction—this greater hierarchy is not developed within the internal legal system of said States.

On the contrary, all of the subjective rights that facilitate the transmission of wealth are given priority and are supported by the majority. Our primary codes and laws are aimed at upholding that patrimonial right to transmit wealth (goods and services), as well as the provision of the means for legal protection, in order to separate “yours” from “mine”, as argued by Karl Olivecrona, expert in Scandinavian legal realism.

Photo_ John Martinez Pavliga_ CC BY 2.0

This reveals a paradigmatic and reified legal order in which the subject under law appears as the personification of all of the goods that make up their estate. In other words, the subject under law is the estate and not a human being as such. One only needs to observe the persistence of the distinction between personal rights and property rights, the latter wielding structural legal power directly over its object.

The fetishisation of thinking that we have direct legal relationships with things is one of the epistemological barriers that must be removed if we are to give way to seeing human rights as part of a higher order, as they deserve to be seen. One only needs to observe that wealth and natural resources tend to be positioned as State-owned private goods (national, provincial, local) in order to see how neglected the proclamation of the UN International Agreements is with regard to public ownership of a community’s wealth and natural resources.

To summarise, all human rights policy will have to face two types of obstacles: a) the inequality built into international geopolitical structures; b) the epistemological barrier stemming from hegemony and the prevalence of the notion of subjective rights (legally protected interests), together with the emerging hierarchical prevalence of human rights.

Proposals for human rights policy

After defining which rights are protected and which rights are at risk due to the pandemic, as well as a description of the profound inequalities in the Americas, Resolution 1/2020 of the ICHR proceeds to propose various measures, including how to deal with the economic burden and conditions resulting from foreign debts. The resolution recommends suspending payment on loans and sanctions and a significant reduction in the corresponding amounts (point 18 of the proposals). It also calls for (point 13) the adoption of extra financing for the duration of the pandemic and its aftermath. Point 19 recommends that State authorities throughout the Americas monitor the compliance of businesses with their obligations related to economic, social, cultural and environmental rights, particularly during the pandemic, in order to guarantee access to and enforcement of these rights in this or any other emergency situation.

This reveals a paradigmatic and reified legal order in which the subject under law appears as the personification of all of the goods that make up their estate. In other words, the subject under law is the estate and not a human being as such.

Let us also mention that there are other themes that must also be addressed: a) Capital Flight for the benefit of international finance capitalism; b) dependence on technology and payment for the transfer of technology, which subjects less developed countries, among other things, to a situation in which they cannot develop sufficient, much needed vaccine policies to ward off the COVID-19 pandemic and other manmade, military or natural disasters (earthquakes, tsunamis, forest fires, droughts, etc.).

John Kenneth Galbraith, one of the most influential economists of the 20th Century, has made the excellent argument that marginalised countries remit royalties and levies to minority countries, in the order of two to three dollars annually for every dollar that they receive in international loans. He also argued that no honest business, whether industrial or commercial, could collect these profits of two to three dollars annually for every dollar loaned out (which, moreover, would have to be repaid at high interest rates). This is precisely why Galbraith proposed, at the beginning of the 21st Century, to cancel the foreign debt of marginalised countries in order to avoid a collapse of the international financial system. This was proposed, all the while making it clear that cancelling these countries’ foreign debt was not enough and that it would also be necessary to cancel payments for the transfer of technology. “Copyleft and not copyright” is the new paradigm behind how knowledge is treated in the 21st Century.

In some of the many essays inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been speculation about the change needed in economic and geopolitical relations that could bring about a new, more egalitarian and solidarity-based relational model for our society. We cannot and should not dismiss this possibility. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that inequality in the distribution of wealth has grown over the course of the pandemic and has been compounded by war, the economic impact of which has been felt internationally. This reveals that the value, idea and norm of fraternity, or solidarity, has not succeeded in bringing about significant change in the distribution of wealth, either nationally or internationally.

The World Summit on Climate Change, held in October of 2021, showcased beautifully worded speeches, both from majority and minority countries, but until now no concrete policies have materialised to put such proclamations into effect, especially those made by the leaders of highly industrialised countries. Instead, these countries continue to alter and destroy the planet. Secretary General of the UN, Antonio Guterres, has had to admonish leaders of world powers because of their non-compliance with commitments made at the World Summit on Climate Change, both with regard to policies that are destructive to nature and to the payment of annual contributions to economically marginalised countries in compensation for the environmental destruction caused by unchecked extractivist capitalism while exploiting their natural resources and wealth.

A few concluding proposals

1: Emphasise the stipulations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights regarding the idea that none of the recognised rights will be possible if peace is not maintained among nations. There must be an end to colonial and neo-colonial enclaves and attachments. Acts of force and territorial conquests based on violence, as in the case of the Falkland Islands and the South Atlantic, must not be recognised by the international community.
2: International and regional organisations devoted to protecting the validity and effectiveness of human rights must guarantee not only the integrity of their texts, but also their fundamental implementation and enforcement in the material, day-to-day life of individuals and communities.
3: To foster a more egalitarian society, between nations and especially within their borders, in order to:
3.1: Definitively cancel foreign debts owed by poor, marginalised or emerging national economies.
3.2: Eliminate or significantly reduce the cost of the transfer of technology.
3.3: Adopt an International or Regional Convention for the Prevention and Penalisation of Capital Flight.
3.4: Make advances in the recovery of legislative and jurisdictional sovereignty in marginalised countries, abolishing any submission to foreign or supranational jurisdictions in economic matters.
3.5: Diversify legal forms of ownership in order to guarantee legal ownership of communities over all of the natural resources and wealth in their territories.
3.6: Assure that well-being and progress are a social good, establishing guidelines for the redistribution of wealth.
3.7: Preserve the systemic balance of nature through a biocentric paradigm.
3.8: Always remember, in all circumstances, that human rights cannot exist where communities and individuals live in fear and poverty.